Restoration of Arlington House

During major restorative efforts to Arlington House from 1929 to 1930, the Gray family made another important contribution to the history of Arlington County and the nation. Four of Selina and Thornton’s daughters provided crucial details about the house and its furnishings, and their input proved vital to the authenticity of the project. A series of interviews with Emma Gray Syphax and Sarah Gray Wilson in 1929 and with Annie Gray Baker and Ada Gray Thompson in 1930 enabled preservationists to restore the Custis-Lee estate to its Civil War era appearance.

The recollections of Syphax and Wilson painted a vivid mental image of the North Building, which sat opposite the South Building where the Gray family lived. They recalled that while other slaves did live in the North Building, its primary function was for food preparation and cooking. The sisters indicated that it was called the “Summer Kitchen,” although meals were prepared there all year long. Summer kitchens were typical on southern plantations, where weather conditions during certain months prompted the temporary relocation of cooking facilities, with their heat and odors, away from the main dwelling. Both Syphax and Wilson remembered that the kitchen was large enough to accommodate the preparation of the most elaborate of feasts, and they knew every detail of the North Building’s interior, which included a large, open fireplace with a spit and an old-fashioned oven. (3)

In 1930, Baker and Thompson picked up where their sisters left off and provided information about the exterior of the North Building. They told of the vegetable garden that was situated just outside of the main house, next to the kitchen door. On the opposite side of the main house was a flower garden. The sisters recalled precisely which flowers and trees were planted there, and they noted the exact placement of each and every one: “The arbor in the center is red and pink honeysuckle with yellow jasmine over it. Along the sides of the garden were rows of roses. In the center were two large magnolia trees, white and pink.” (2) They also said that while the Union forces occupied Arlington House, fallen U.S. soldiers were brought to the estate and buried next to the flower garden.

The details provided by the Gray daughters about the layout of the main house were even more specific than their memories of the North Building. They remembered that, positioned directly beneath the north wing of the mansion, next to the wine cellar and the furnace rooms, there was a washroom where all of the Lee clothing and household textiles, such as curtains, tablecloths, napkins, sheets, and blankets, were laundered before being hung outside to dry. (Syphax and Wilson, 3) Under the south wing was the dairy house where they kept milk in a deep well in the center of the room. (Syphax and Wilson, 3) In addition, the sisters disclosed that one of the jobs required of the slaves who worked in the dairy house was to churn fresh butter every morning for the daily meals. Their knowledge of the workrooms, the areas of the mansion most frequented by the Lee slaves, should not be surprising. However, the sisters had had access to the Lee family’s living areas as well.

The sisters began by describing the public rooms, which were located on the first floor. Baker and Thompson remembered vividly that a pair of antlers hung in the main hall above the front door and that paintings of battles adorned the walls of the front room. (2) In the rooms to the left of the hall were fireplaces that provided heat to the rest of the house. According to Baker and Thompson, carrying firewood into the house was a constant and often tedious chore for the slaves. (3) They stated that to the right of the hall was the parlor, where guests were received. Just beyond the parlor was a bedroom and the walls throughout the house were painted a “yellowish shade.” (3) Directly in front of the main entrance in the hall were steps leading upstairs. The women provided the exact layout of the second floor, which included the southwest chamber used by General and Mrs. Lee and the rooms of all of the Lee children. They even described the placement of the Lee children’s beds. (Syphax and Wilson, 5) By supplying these details and more, Selina’s daughters played as crucial a role in the preservation of Arlington House as their mother had years before.